Astral Magic

1 Introduction

The Western tradition of astral magic—that is, the one shared across societies dominated by Islam and Christianity—is a strange beast. In its contemporary forms, it commonly has overt Jewish, Christian or Islamic features, including invocations of God and angels. In Latin Christendom, some theologians accepted that (at least if ideally practiced) it was “natural magic”, working through automatic processes rather than any kind of (licit or illicit) worship. In the classical Islamic period, on the other hand, the devotional pagan character of such rituals was advertised, as there was a fashion for pagan or “Sabian” ideas and practices in the multicultural city of Baghdad. Yet the question of continuity between ancient pagan practices and post-antique astral magic is an extremely complex issue.

2 Greco-Roman astral magic

Setting aside Mesopotamian, Egyptian and other traditions (for now), it is abundantly clear from Greek and Latin sources that the planets and other stars were both integrated into ordinary worship as a matter of course and central to magical practices in Ancient Mediterranean paganism. Yet in surviving texts, the scope is rarely that of later astral magic, i.e., extends either only to some stars (especially Sun and Moon), or to stars beyond the seven classical planets and zodiac signs (e.g., the Bear, Ursa Major), or includes non-astral deities alongside astral ones. Works that treat all planets/zodiac signs and only these are rare, although they do exist and their popularity later on may suggest that even at this period, they were more common than it now appears.

For an example of an ancient manual of systematic astral magic in the vein that would later become hegemonic, see On Stones and their Engravings. The two Greco-Egypto-Roman pieces under this title give instructions for planetary rings, with distinct gems and engravings set into them. From ancient texts about consecration, we know that such planetary rings were understood, in effect, as miniaturized cult statues, and it is from such quasi-idols that the later talismans descend. Because the most developed theory of how the empowering of cult statues functioned is found in the Neoplatonists, especially Proclus, it is sometimess claimed that talismanic magic descends directly from Neoplatonic “theurgy”. But that is a confused and oversimplified description of the real historical connections. The practical handbooks used by the Neoplatonists (both those which can be classified as “theurgic” and those which cannot) were not transmitted by medieval scribes, as their own works of philosophy were. And even if they were, they likely contained only the seeds from which the Neoplatonic theory of ritual sprouted, but were not Neoplatonic in and of themselves.

What survives for us are, on the one hand, Greco-Roman text of magic (not influenced by Neoplatonism, but often closely parallel to the practical handbooks that would have been available to the likes of Proclus) and, on the other hand, Islamicate works translated from Greek or, more commonly, modelled indirectly on Greek exemplars. (And then, of course, translations of lost Arabic works into Hebrew, Spanish, Latin and so on, or new independent works in various languages descending from them.) Because of the fluidity of the magical tradition, which rarely crystallizes into canonical works, there is very limited overlap between these two corpora, although it is clear that they are closely related. Likewise, the Neoplatonists and other ancient theorists rarely refer to texts which survive either in Greek or in Arabic, although it is clear that they knew some very similar pieces.

  • Ancient Manuals preserved in ancient Greek or Latin versions:
  • Ancient manuals preserved in Arabic translations:
    • Description of the Stones of the Seven Stars and their Engravings According to the Ascendent.
    • The Book “Logika” about Talismans.
    • Hermes (ˤUṭārid the Scribe), Book of the Use of Stones.
    • Apollonius the Sage on Stones.
    • Kriton, Book of the Explanations of Spiritual Talismans.

3 Post-antique planetary magic

When magical texts in Arabic, Persian, Hebrew, Latin or Byzantine Greek use elements of Neoplatonic theory, this is almost always a result of post-antique writers applying the philosophy of their own time to the magical practices of their own time (with both, independently, deriving to some extent from Greco-Roman antiquity). This means that the Platonic elements are almost always combined with elements of different origin (e.g., from Stoicism) or merged into novel ideas (like the “Ten Intellects Cosmology” of Islamicate philosophy) or adapted to the context of other religions (as evident not only in Islam, Judaism and Christianity, but also Zoroastrianism and the Islamicate paganism of Ḥarrān; in the latter, for instance, “spirits” had a position similar, but not identical to that of daemons in Greek polytheism). This also means that, as intellectual fashions changed, magic would become more and less Neoplatonic, more and less pagan, more and less demonic, and so on.

4 The complex lineage of the Liber Orationum Planetarum Septem

The changefulness of the tradition can be demonstrated by looking at one particular text and its reception history. I am referring to the Book of Addresses to the Seven Planets, a Latin text which was edited in 2001 (off-site link) by Vittoria Perrone Compagni. (In line with the thinking of the time, Compagni calls it a “Hermetic source”; but it has nothing to do with Hermes.)

This work contains orationes to be addressed to each of the planets, who are praised in superlative terms falling just short of divine honor (using the title dominus, “lord”). But while at first glance, one might think that they are only superficially monotheized pagan invocations (with the phrase In nomine Dei, “In the name of God”, added at the start of each), in fact the descriptions of the planets seem to be drawn not so much from pagan ritual tradition as from astrology. Further, the addresses are not merely requests, but adjure the planets through certain names. This principle is known in pagan magic too, of course, but the names show no Greek, Babylonian or Egyptian character that I can see, rather seeming distinctly Arabic (either because the Book of Addresses is translated from Arabic or because it is directly modelled on Arabic originals/translations from Arabic). Likewise, while the complex suffumigations that go along with the addresses are related to the incenses prescribed in the Greek Magical Papyri, they seem to be elaborate original inventions. Thus, while abstractly similar to something like Orphic Hymns, which also contain addresses to the planets paired with suffumigations, in concrete terms, we are quite removed from the assumptions and attitudes that governed pagan worship.

Yet an appendix added to this idiosyncratic book in one of the two manuscripts containing the full text, Darmstadt MS 1410, reveals that the wider context of planetary talismanic magic also retained some elements which, while no longer overtly pagan, had never been transposed into Christian or Islamic terms either. In excerpts taken from a variety of other texts, we are given many “figures” (from the Revolutio animarum et corporum and from another book), “characters”, “sigils” (attributed to Bellemus, i.e., Apollonius of Tyana, and another unnamed philosopher), “rings” and “images” of the planets. All alike are abstract symbols, but the terminology shows continuity with the pagan cult statue (lat. sigillum or imago), with the abstract symbols (gr./lat. characteres) used in ancient amulets, and with the ring as a miniaturized cult image. All these are what the Neoplatonists called synthēmata or “tokens” of a deity, through which matter can be made to share in the god; or, as the Stoics and medieval magical texts might put it, these symbols draw down “spirits” (gr. pneumata) from the stars through a natural sympathy. (Neoplatonists would prefer to speak of ineffable, i.e., supernatural sympathy.) There are also directions for the proper suffumigations and inks (in which to write the figures or talismans), and a short and very simple section on the timing of talismans which recalls the ancient astrology of consecration. With all these assonances, the Liber Orationum can be a useful text through which to approach the Neoplatonic theory of ritual, which ancient writers like Sallustius usually sketch out only in abstract terms.

This unknowing reproduction of pagan ideas in a new context can be contrasted with the overt classicizing of some Renaissance magicians, who on the contrary are often concerned to give a (more or less superficial) pagan coloring to what are really Islamicate practices and ideas. Thus, Cornelius Agrippa in On Occult Philosophy 2.59 includes passages taken from the Liber Orationum Planetarum among ancient names and epithets, as if they too were of Greek or Roman pedigree. Sources Agrippa explicitly refers to are Hermes, an ancient oracle, the Athenians, Assyrians and Hebrews, Homer, the Roman poet Lucan and the Orphic Hymns (which, somewhat cheekily, are described as invocations of natural magic addressing the planets as well as other stars).

The next link in our chain is Giordano Bruno, one of the few post-antique philosophers in the Western tradition who can justly be described as a polytheist (although one without prejudice against Jewish and Christian traditions of magic). He used Agrippa and his general knowledge of ancient literature as the basis for a series of planetary incantations put into the mount of the mythical witch Circe in his Cantus Circaeus. Here we have come full circle, from a medieval text that was only a distant echo of Greo-Roman magic, to what presents itself as a work of Greco-Roman magic and preserves only a shadowy trace of its medieval origins.